PART 2: Politicians cope with 'faceless' crowd on social media

Editor's note: The following is the second instalment in a three-part series. To read Part 1, click here.

Depending on who you talk to, social media is either a great equalizer or a great menace.

Some folks believe it’s a great equalizer because it can give a platform to every voice.

Others think it’s a great menace for the very same reason.

Essentially devoid of rules, restrictions or any code of conduct, social media can be a battleground — divisive, antagonistic and intolerant.

Linda Myles is the administrator of a Facebook group called Engaged Residents of Oro-Medonte (EROM), a private group of about 550 members that discusses the comings-and-goings in Oro-Medonte Township.

She said her experience being a victim of harassment, bullying and misleading false posts has made her more cautious about how she administers the EROM group.

“I don't want anyone to be subjected to that in our group,” Myles told BarrieToday. “We have a zero-tolerance policy on abuse, personal attacks or false or misleading information about anyone.”

Myles said the group has removed and blocked 11 profiles in two years.

“Most of those were because the person engaged in ongoing personal attacks and/or disrespectful language,” she said.

Myles said some were removed when administrators discovered they were not using their real names.

Fake profiles and false identities are an ongoing challenge on social media. Creating one requires little effort. Googling ‘create a fake profile on Facebook’ generated about 158 million results in less than a second.

“I suggest there exist those who are emboldened by the faceless, anonymous and remote nature of social media that behave far differently online than they do in their daily face-to-face interactions,” said George Cabral, Springwater Township's deputy mayor.

“One way to deal, as an individual, with this type of distortion is to tune it out and avoid participation as much as possible," he added.

In "real life," Cabral said people talk behind others' backs all the time, but, for the most part, the person who is being talked about remains unaware because people are too polite to mention whatever the slight might be to their face.

On social media, though, not only do people comment but they go out of their way to ensure the person who the comment is about knows the comment exists.

“Folks feel emboldened to write/say whatever they might normally only say in private or behind one's back,” Cabral said. "But there it is, completely out in the open for anyone's eyes to see or ears to hear, including the individual to whom the comment was directed.”

Don Lewis is the administrator of a Facebook group called Oro-Medonte Community Matters. The group features new posts almost daily, many of them pointedly critical of members of Oro-Medonte council. The group has almost 1000 members.

A number of Oro-Medonte councillors called the site out for distributing misinformation, posting personal attacks on council members and generally stirring the pot.

They claim Don Lewis is not a real person — that it’s a fake profile being used to conceal the identity of a disgruntled resident.

“I've been called Don Lewis all my life,” Lewis said during an exchange on Facebook with BarrieToday. “I live in Oro-Medonte.

"I hear all the accusations made against me, but I just don't care," Lewis added.

According to Lewis, the Oro-Medonte Community Matters page allows anonymous contributions, because there are ratepayers who are afraid to speak publicly due to having been bullied and having lost business due to their business having been targeted by people whose opinions differed from theirs.

“This is a way to allow freedom of expression without exposing people who are at risk,” he said.

Lewis also claims some of his group’s members have had anonymous, defamatory letters sent to their employers.

When asked to provide specific instances or names of people who have been bullied or lost business due to their comments, Lewis didn’t provide any.

Lewis said the issue is not about who is doing the posting, but rather what is being posted.

“Simply posting facts is not bullying,” he said.

But the root issue, according to some township councillors, is the veracity of those facts. They point out municipal politics is filled with moving parts; some decisions are made in public and some are made in closed session. Unless you’re privy to all of those conversations, any speculation is just that.

“The opportunity to disseminate distortion, perpetuate false narratives and create controversy, to my mind anyway, weaponizes social media far too easily, taking it far from the good valuable communications tool it was meant to be,” said Cabral.

“That is the difficulty. And while I do believe it's a small percentage of users, the numbers don't matter when their frequency and reach can be so vast digitally," he added. “With one post followed by a click of a button, a comment — good or bad — can be instantaneously posted to a myriad of social-media accounts.”

'Russ Logan' is the administrator of the Springwater Ontario Discussion Group, which has about 1,000 members. He is quick to point out Logan is not his real last name. He said he’s a Springwater resident who uses a ‘nom de plume’ because of his job.

He said set up the group page to get people engaged and hopefully get some feedback that local politicians would consider when making decisions for the community.

“I try not to censor too much unless it is completely rude and unhelpful,” he said during a Facebook chat. “To be mad is OK. To be insulting or threatening is unacceptable and will not be approved.”

Back in Oro-Medonte, Myles said Facebook needs to take an active role in controlling the online environment. She said she’s reported harassment and bullying to Facebook, but with no results.

“In my experience, Facebook does nothing,” she said. “There are far too many harassing, slanderous and defamatory posts allowed on Facebook.”

BarrieToday reached out to Facebook to find out how the social-media giant defines harassment, bullying and intimidation, and what steps it takes when a complaint is made. Despite repeated requests, Facebook didn’t respond.

Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,